13 September 2002
by Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Temple University
We will be focussing here on the two longer narrative Homeric Hymns to the male Olympians Apollo and Hermes. Each will give us a sense of their characteristic activities and natures through narrating the myths of their births and early lives. In such hymns, keep in mind our observation concerning the rise of Zeus in Hesiod's Theogony: myths of gods tend to be patterned on human hero myths. Of course, we have not yet studied those hero myths, but the divine myths will thus help us prepare for heroes. These Hymns are called Homeric because they are written in the style of Homer, but their content also corresponds to important themes and patterns in Homeric epic. Overall, think about how the two hymns celebrate the qualities Zeus needs in order to acquire and maintain control.
This hymn may be two separate hymns, but they are numbered continuously as a single text. The titles "Delian" and "Pythian" refer to the roles of Delos and Delphi in the stories. Delos and Delphi are two cult centers for the worship of Apollo. The first part thus tells us of Apollo's birth on Delos and the second of his founding of his temple at Delphi. Numbers refer to lines.
As you read: think about the following:
(1-18) Why do the gods tremble at Apollo's arrival? Is this significant?
(35-101) Note Leto's problems in finding a place to give birth to Apollo and her difficulty giving birth. Can you think of any other myths where a mother has difficulty giving birth to a great individual. Why does the hymn use this pattern? Note also the of Delos concerning Apollo' prophesied arrogance.
(131-32) Baby Apollo immediately claims his two most prominent symbols: the lyre and the bow.
(165-78) Note how the text insists that it is sung in performance. Keep in mind that poetry was an oral, sing, performance activity. Store in your memories the reference to the poet's blindness for future reference (why should a bard be blind?)
(179-81) The present text of the hymn is careful to connect its two parts by reference to Delos as part two begins.
(182) The site of Apollo's temple is called Pytho at the beginning of the hymn. Later, the hymn will tell us why Pytho was appropriately named and then how it received the name Delphi.
(244-276) The nymph Telephusa tries to trick Apollo from her abode at Onchestus. Note the text tells us she "persuades" Apollo to look elsewhere. Think of other examples of female persuasion.
(300-310) Careful here: the hymn tells us that Apollo killed the she-dragon before it tells us those events. You might become confused! Is the dragon's gender significant? Why does the hymn link this dragon to Typhaon? Why does it thus digress into the myth of the birth of Typhaon?
(311-362) Typhaon=Typhoeus. Note that the Hymn changes his mother from Gaia, as in Theogony to Hera. Why? Keep it clear in your head that Apollo kills the dragoness who shelters Typhaon and not Typhaon.
(370) The hymn establishes the folk etymology connected Pytho with the Greek verb "to rot." The name thus commemorates Apollo's victory over the dragon. Why is the defeat of the serpent so important? Does the serpent have the same connotations as in Judeo-Christian thought?
(375-87) What do you make of Apollo's response to Telephusa?
(388-501) Why does Apollo chose men from Crete to be his first priests? Note the second folk etymology explaining the origins of the word Delphi.
If, while reading this story, you start to chuckle, don't worry, because this story is supposed to be funny. (Not all Greek myths are downers!) You should consider how certain events and themes parody similar ones in the Hymn to Apollo and Theogony.
(1-29) Note the stress on the clandestine liasons between Zeus and Maia and consider whether this affects the nature of Hermes once he is born. Think about the list of qualities ascribed to Hermes here: why would a divine hymn praise such qualities?
(30-38) Compare the presence of the turtle here with the role of the dragon in the Apollo hymn. Could we call this heroic turtle combat? Note that the first act of Hermes is to create the instrument the poet holds and plays during this song. Thus, poetry is linked to deception; remember what the Muses told Hesiod.
(68-96) Note the appearance of the epithet "slayer of Argos". Hermes will not kill Argos for quite some time. Keep track of the appearance of this epithet and consider the context of each instance. And, why steal Apollo's cattle?
(94-137) Hermes invents fire and thus inevitably starts thinking abou cooking. Note that he really wants to eat the sacrificial meat once they start roasting. In ancient Greece, all cooked flesh comes from a sacrifice; to whom would Hermes be sacrificing? And he savors the smell, but, of course, he cannot eat the meat!
(235-300) Hermes' innocent protests should make you smile. Even Apollo is amused. And what is this "omen from below" that Hermes issues? Note that sneezing was considered an omen as well.
(363-86) How is the response to Zeus different from the one earlier to Apollo? How does he manage here to not actually tell a lie?
(414-95) The lyre and song get Hermes out of big trouble! This episode explains how Apollo acquired the lyre. Note that Hermes now moves from a position of danger to one where he attempts bartering with Apollo.
(521-49) Hermes receives his wand from Apollo. The two gods seal their friendship through the exchange of gifts. Consider whether Hermes is now allowed unfettered trickery, or whether he must, ultimately, be controlled by Apollo